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article imageAustria begins withdrawal of Golan Heights peacekeeping force

By Abdul Kuddus     Jun 12, 2013 in World
Austria has begun withdrawing peacekeepers from Golan Heights. The pullout of peacekeepers jeopardizes a four-decade UN mission due to spillover of fighting from the Syrian civil war.
Austria declared last week that it would remove its peacekeeping contingent, numbering around 370, from the 1000-strong UN force when Syrian rebels captured a crossing point between Israel and Syria at Quneitra. Reportedly, Vienna decided to quit the mission over deteriorating security concerns.
Vienna’s decision to pull out Austrian forces from the Golan Heights deals a heavy blow to the UN mission. UN forces have been posted in the Golan since 1974 to monitor the cease-fire. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established after the 1973 Mideast war between Syria and Israel.
The UN forces in Golan also include Philippine and Indian peacekeepers. In March, Croatia also withdrew fearing its troops would be targeted.
Last Thursday, Syrian rebels stormed the UN position at the border post near the town of Quneitra and held it briefly before Syrian forces regained control. Reportedly, the UN peacekeepers receive most of their supplies from Israel through the Quneitra crossing.
Fierce clashes between pro-Assad forces and Syrian rebels forced the peacekeepers to seek shelter in a nearby base. Reportedly, soldiers were injured in the shelling.
Austria's Chancellor Werner Faymann defended Austria’s decision to pull out from Golan Heights saying:
“We never could have and would never have wanted to take on a military mission to mediate or intervene between the opposition rebels and governmental troops. We took over a different mandate, which was appropriate for a neutral country.”
Austria’s withdrawal leaves the Philippines as the single largest force in Golan.
With the UN forces pulling out one by one, Israel is concerned about the absence of a buffer zone between Israel and Syria, which would increase its vulnerability. The removal of more than one-third of the total strength of the 1000-strong UN force will leave a gaping hole between Syria and Israel.
With the UN looking for replacement, Russia expressed its willingness to fill the gap in the Golan Heights. But the 1974 UN international agreement that created the UN monitoring force prevents members of the UN Security Council from participating in the mission.
More about Austria, Golan heights, Syria, Israel, Troop withdrawal
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